Guest Post: New Federal Report Spotlights Global Deforestation, Importance of Domestic Action

Forest conversion and loss hasn’t rated very high on the U.S. political agenda since federal climate legislation stalled in 2010. But that doesn’t mean deforestation—nor its climate damage—has stopped.

We’re still losing about 90,000 acres of forestland, along with its capacity to safely absorb and store greenhouse gases, every day around the world (Source: FAO). Here at home, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates more than 57 million acres of U.S. forests will be converted to other uses by 2030 (Source: USDA).

Which is why it’s encouraging to see that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report detailing the potential of forests to combat global climate change.

Entitled Deforestation and Greenhouse Gases, the report assesses the climate role of forests and identifies the challenges facing policymakers in more fully harnessing forests in the fight against global climate change.

The report was compiled at the request of Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a co-author of the last attempt at a federal climate bill in 2010. He should be applauded for his commitment to this issue, says Pacific Forest Trust Board Secretary Andrea Tuttle, Ph.D., the former director of the California Department of Forestry. A global forest and climate consultant, Tuttle attends the negotiating sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as an observer for PFT.

“It’s great to see this issue back in the Congressional spotlight,” Tuttle said. “One of the bright spots in the UN climate negotiations has been the progress in setting the standards for measuring and slowing the global rate of deforestation. There’s a key role for the U.S. and other developed countries to play by incentivizing forest protection through well-designed markets for the climate benefits of forests.”

Unlike most other sectors, forests are unique in their capacity to act as either a net source of carbon sequestration OR a net source of the carbon emissions fueling climate change. When conserved and healthy, forests are a climate defense, absorbing and storing far more carbon dioxide than they emit. When cleared or degraded, forests become net emitters of greenhouse gases. Currently, forests hold about 760 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide globally—or more than 100 times all U.S. emissions in 2009. Despite the impressive magnitude of this carbon storage, however, deforestation and degradation continue to undermine global forest carbon sinks at an alarming rate. During the 1990s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that forest loss was responsible for 20% of global GHG emissions in terms of warming impact. While this number fell to about 12% during 2000 to 2005, this decline was due to drastic increases in fossil fuel consumption—not any great reductions in deforestation.

The considerable carbon storage capacity of forests and the emissions associated with their loss make forests a central concern in addressing global climate change. In its assessment, the CBO recognizes the great potential of forests in climate change, but identifies several challenges that first must be overcome before this potential can be more fully realized. For instance, unlike many other emissions sources—where GHGs can be tracked at the end of a smokestack—quantifying emissions and sequestration from forests is much more challenging.

Generally, this requires monitoring changes in forest carbon storage from year to year, and converting gains and losses in wood volumes to GHG equivalents. However, with 95% of forest-based emissions arising from only 25 countries, most of which are developing nations in the tropics, existing forest inventory data are often inaccurate at best—or nonexistent at worst.

Further, the CBO notes that designing policies to reduce emissions through avoided deforestation can pose substantial challenges. For instance, when deforestation is halted in one location, demand for the goods that would have been produced may simply displace deforestation to another location. As a result, unless policies can find ways to prevent this demand-driven “leakage,” avoiding deforestation in one location may, in actuality, do little to reduce atmospheric GHG concentrations. Finally, even if these challenges can be overcome, governance issues in developing countries may complicate the implementation of policies to reduce forest loss.

Although attempting to address governance issues in developing nations may be challenging, the CBO notes that cultivating technical expertise, policy solutions, and strong markets for emissions reductions are all important ways in which developed nations can work toward reducing global deforestation.

California’s climate program, along with the development of other state and regional climate programs, also are important steps to addressing deforestation abroad, Tuttle notes.”Many states and provinces already offer examples of pro-climate forest policies. Certainly California is known for its programs, but forest landowners in New England, the Southeast and Northwest are also taking advantage of forest carbon protocols and markets.”

Low-density housing developments like this one in Maryland account for much of the 1.7 million acres of U.S. forestland that are converted each year.

While the challenges of reducing global deforestation may be considerable, the actions developed nations have taken to confront these issues internally are important first steps to addressing them internationally. Though deforestation in the U.S. pales in magnitude when compared to losses in the tropics, the technical expertise, markets, and policy approaches being developed here at home can have great applicability abroad. The CBO’s Deforestation and Greenhouse Gases report is an important reminder that the development of policies to address deforestation and emissions at home is a critical part of also doing so abroad.

Learn more about the Pacific Forest Trust’s work to pioneer forest and climate policy solutions here at home on their Working Forests, Winning Climate page.

You can read Andrea Tuttle’s analysis of the forest and climate progress made at international negotiations in Durban, South Africa, on the PFT blog.

This post is a re-post from the Pacific Forest Trust blog entry from January 18, 2012. Read the original here.